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NBA teams that come from behind don’t win more in overtime, Israeli study finds

Ben-Gurion University researchers conclude that home advantage, season-long win-loss record are more likely to affect winning chances than 4th-quarter comeback

Golden State Warriors players celebrate after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, California, June 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors players celebrate after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, California, June 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Basketball teams that come from behind to tie a game do not have a greater chance of winning in overtime, according to a new Israeli study.

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beersheba have published a study of hundreds of NBA games in the Journal of Economic Psychology, debunking theories of how psychological momentum in sports and in life leads to success.

“People talk about momentum as an indicator for success in business, sports and politics,” study co-author Dr. Elia Morgulev from the BGU’s Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management said in a statement released Sunday by the university.

“However, after studying close to 900 tied games with fourth quarter comebacks over 11 National Basketball Association seasons, we found that regardless of momentum, teams with the home court advantage and the better season-long win-loss record were more likely to succeed in the five-minute overtime.”

Dr. Morgulev wrote the research, published on November 30, along with Profs. Ofer H. Azar and Michael Bar-Eli. According to BGU, they are the first to analyze the effect of fourth-quarter comebacks on overtime performance.

In the study, the academics also address the larger question of whether recent success creates enough psychological momentum to make a positive impact on subsequent team and individual performance.

Ben-Gurion University (Dr. Avishai Teicher, www.pikiwiki.org.il)

“These findings raise questions for future research,” said Prof. Bar-Eli. “Why don’t we observe momentum in situations where success should lead to psychological and physiological gains?”

Bar-Eli suggested potential explanations, according to which the momentum of a comeback team could be offset by a more aggressive, focused and motivated team that feels it was “robbed” of its win; by being so exhausted that it loses its momentum; or by relaxing because the team feels it has achieved a key target by avoiding losing outright.

“These findings are also relevant in the education field as current pedagogy is obsessed with promoting the experience of success,” added Morgulev. “They often neglect the importance of obstacles and failures in building of a character and in fostering inner motivation to overcome and prevail.”

Ultimately, the researchers asked: Why do people tend to associate NBA comebacks with psychological momentum, even though data does not support it?

“It seems intuitive to expect a comeback team to benefit from momentum,” said Prof. Azar. “So perhaps when a team that closed a gap in the fourth quarter does win in overtime, it stands out more in people’s memories and reinforces a common belief over time.”

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